Justice for Kwame: queer disclosure in I May Destroy You

When a show succeeds in nearly every way it can often feel like a betrayal to identify its weaknesses, and this is certainly the case for Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You. First released in June 2020, the show was quickly recognised as a profound and intelligent piece of cultural criticism. But scrutiny is the burden of good work, and I May Destroy You has a major blindspot worth discussing.

The series begins with Arabella, a young Black British woman (played by Coel) dodging deadlines for the delivery of the manuscript of her second book. Towards the end of the first episode, the story takes an abrupt turn when Arabella is sexually assaulted by a stranger in a London bar after her drink is spiked with a sedative. What follows over the next eleven episodes is a complex and often painful dissection of sexual violence and the myriad ways it occurs. It is sophisticated, intersectional and powerful in its study of rape culture, particularly through the prism of gender, race and class. It’s also blistering: the television equivalent of putting your hand on a hot plate in an act of ritual cleansing.

But then there’s Kwame.

Played with great compassion by Paapa Essiedu, Kwame is one of Arabella’s closest friends and the primary point of access for the show’s exploration of queer issues. In many ways Kwame, is a ground-breaking character. He possesses a rich and complex inner life, something rarely afforded to gay men on screen, and even more rarely to queer characters of colour. He is neither a crutch nor a punch line.

Kwame is assaulted during a Grindr meet, and reports it to the police. The show then proceeds to deftly highlight the differing reception of Bella and Kwame’s stories. While Bella is treated with sensitivity and diligence, in Kwame’s case the police – as a microcosm of society at large – are incapable of comprehending how a Black queer man may be a victim of sexual violence.

Yet, for all the promise of this initial character arc, a subplot in the episode Line Spectrum Border exposes an archaic and troubling perspective on queerness that is peppered through the remainder of the series.

Quietly struggling with the residual trauma of his assault, Kwame resolves to try sleeping with a woman. After matching and chatting with Nilufer online, he meets her in a London restaurant. They share charming banter about hats and vulnerability, and then on the walk back to her apartment she reveals herself to possess a fetishistic obsession with Black men.

Back at Nilufer’s flat, Kwame perseveres through his initial discomfort and they proceed to have passionate sex, jarringly interlaced with visually similar images of Kwame being assaulted. Afterwards, the pair lie together, joking and laughing. It’s in the course of this conversation that Nilufer reveals she harbours a distaste for gay men as ‘major appropriators of the female identity’. At which point Kwame identifies himself as a gay man.

An argument ensues. When pressed on why he didn’t mention his sexuality, Kwame states ‘sexuality is a spectrum. I wanted to explore –’, but he’s cut off by Nilufer, who declares: ‘You’re gay. Why would you not say that you were gay?’

Given Kwame’s deliberately obtuse answer when asked earlier in the episode what kind of girls he likes, there are legitimate questions to be raised about the ethics of the encounter. However, it is in the following episode, Social Media Is A Great Way To Connect, that the imputations of the exchange are really brought to the fore.

At a wine and painting night for POCs, Kwame recounts the evening to Arabella, who reacts with dogmatic ferocity: ‘it’s no wonder she was angry, she found out you were gay after dickin’ her and you shot a load up. I would be at least a little bit, like, surprised.’ She goes on to describe Kwame as ‘a man concealing his identity following a woman into her home.’

Disclosure of one’s sexual history is a fraught expectation almost always applied unilaterally. Heterosexuals aren’t expected to disclose their identity to anyone because heteronormativity dictates that they have nothing to disclose.

The revered british anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote extensively about pollution as a social theory and the politics of disgust in her seminal 1966 book Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. She wrote:

It is a relative idea. Shoes are not dirty in themselves, but it is dirty to place them on the dining-table; food is not dirty in itself, but it is dirty to leave cooking utensils in the bedroom

… In short, our pollution behaviour is the reaction which condemns any object or idea likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications.

As long as one stays in their own pool, there is no duty to disclose their sexual orientation. Through this lens gay men are not transgressive by their nature: the transgression instead occurs when they poison the waterhole of heterosexuality. But such a position is blatantly queerphobic. If the logic by which Kwame is judged were to apply to everyone it would leave the bisexual community in a completely untenable limbo in which they must perpetually out themselves to all prospective partners lest every encounter be a prima facie assault. It would also cast legions of straight people who have indulged their curiosity and experimented sexually as predators. It is an absurd and self-defeating double standard.

Mary Douglas also states:

If we can abstract pathogenicity and hygiene from our notion of dirt, we are left with the old definition of dirt as matter out of place. This is a very suggestive approach. It implies two conditions: a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order.

We can’t abstract pathogenicity from any discussion about disclosure in a queer context. HIV hysteria was born of a wilful blindness by the political class to the inner workings of the virus’ pathology in the early years of the epidemic. Despite the astonishing advancements in both treatment and prevention, its long shadow still hangs over the queer community – at its darkest over Black queer men. Sex between men is tolerated when quarantined within the community, but it doesn’t take much for the perception of its inherent danger, of its pathological uncleanness to surface.

The show may never explicitly reference Kwame’s queerness as a potential danger to Nilufer, but the spectre of pollution is there all the same. Why else would Arabella be so direct in referencing Kwame’s bodily fluids? It’s unlikely this allusion is malicious, but the intent is ultimately immaterial when the outcome endorses an enduring stigma.

It is possible to lose sight of the function of bad behaviour in fiction. Sometimes a character’s faults or misjudgements invite the audience to marinate in the discomfort of their choices and reflect on how they may have been handled better. The problem with the disclosure storyline in I May Destroy You is that it affords no space to consider whether disclosure actually is something that is owed by queer men. Bella’s journey is instead to recognise that everyone is capable of being both exploited and exploiter, victim and abuser – never once asking whether the behaviour in question is actually abuse. When she and Kwame reconcile, she apologises not for claiming his non-disclosure was assault, but for being ‘really intense.’ This affords Bella the last word, and upholds a queerphobic trope best left in the past.

The treatment of Kwame is not the only instance in I May Destroy You that speaks to an undercurrent of heteronormativity. In one of the show’s most powerful and dramatic sequences, Arabella plays out a series of imagined futures in which she happens upon her rapist for a second time. In the first, she is able to enact violent revenge. In the next, she helps the rapist process his own trauma. In the final scenario, she takes the rapist home and engages in consensual sex – a situation presented at once as confronting and cathartic. In the middle of the act, their positions switch: Arabella is suddenly above the man and their movements strongly suggest that she is topping him, engaging in penetrative anal sex. The scene seems to imply that this reversal is a metaphor for the reclamation of her agency, but the notion that consensually topping one’s rapist can offer some metaphysical justice is staggeringly heteronormative.

Perhaps the trouble with I May Destroy You is the extent to which it seeks to address all intersections of sexual assault at once. Were it not to feature queerness as a significant element, it would be less likely to be scrutinised through a queer lens. However, its insistence on drawing upon queer characters, culture and imagery does little more than expose a lack of understanding of the community it seeks to represent.

Michael Louis Kennedy

Michael Louis Kennedy is a playwright, poet and occasional journalist based in Sydney. He is currently co-director of the National Young Writers' Festival. He has previously worked for Sydney Fringe, Summerhall (Edinburgh Fringe) and Belvoir. His work is featured in Voiceworks, Brag, Going Down Swinging, Transportation Press, Baby Teeth, Sydney Morning Herald and more. As a playwright he has had readings and productions with Sydney Fringe, the Old 505, Sydney Mardi Gras, and Queer Theory in Glasgow, Scotland. In 2019 he was selected for ATYP’s Fresh Ink program for emerging writers. He is currently enrolled in KYD's 2021 Mentors Program.

More by Michael Louis Kennedy ›

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  1. Thank you for writing this – no one else seems to have noticed. I wasn’t quite as disturbed as you were because the series itself doesn’t seem to let any of its characters be truly “right” in any of their conflicts. And yet the way this was left hanging did feel off in a way I couldn’t quite articulate.

  2. Yeah, thanks for this. I’d add that Nilufer never looked for consent from Kwame at all. It seemed barely consensual. I’d argue it really wasn’t. It certainly didn’t pass standards for “enthusiastic consent.” If she’d even looked at his face, when he was sitting on her bed before she pulled him down, she should have seen that he was not comfortable at all. Nilufer didn’t seem to think it would be possible for a man not to consent. I would guess her character doesn’t think men can be raped by women. Imo, if anyone didn’t give consent in that scene, it was Kwame who didn’t, not Nilufer. Also, she just gets to name-call him all kinds of horrible things, and he never gets to call her out for being a racist fetishizer? Or a terrible, homophobic person? I feel like the show might have known she was terrible and not had the time to get into it. I think they needed another episode for it, at least. Because it didn’t feel like Kwame even had showtime to process that situation (or his questionably consensual loss of virginity experience [we’re not even told how old he was or how old the two men were], etc). And his friends were horrible and very homophobic about the whole thing and never apologized or even realized how horrible they’d been. I think Nilufer was a way worse Karen than Theo–who, to be fair, was a child when she did her shit and also had legitimately been violated by the guy, whereas Nilufer was never really violated imo. Maybe they just didn’t have time to go into it? But also, yeah, maybe the writers just didn’t understand homophobia or homosexuality that well–or that, as Kwame says and I guess the show tried to undermine, sexuality is a fuckin spectrum yall. I don’t think Arabella had time to grow to see that men are also part of the survivor community. She totally fell for Nilufer’s bullshit Karen tears. The question for me is whether the show fell for them or just didn’t devote the time to get into it.

  3. I appreciate your publishing this – I also was concerned that others hadn’t noticed. The episode moves to a place of “what he did was wrong but you’re not always 100% perfect either” as a way to complicate Arabella’s accusations against Kwame, but the show misses the mark hugely because it doesn’t recognize how homophobic her accusation is in the first place.

    A more straightforward way to assess this is: if Kwame were a gay woman, and she was fed up with women and tried sleeping with a man, and then he said something homophobic after they’d slept together and she’d at that point disclosed that she was gay, no one would have had the interpretation that she was being unethical by sleeping with him.

    But men who sleep with men are tainted because of associations with “dirtiness” surrounding anal sex, plus the (undesirable) femininity associated with being a gay man. Those are homophobic biases. It’s not because a person owes a one night stand partner access their sexual identity. Kwame and Nilufer were having straight sex, not gay sex. He knew what he was doing and she enjoyed herself.

    Arabella’s response was also projection onto Kwame, who was a victim of sexual assault, that he is inherently suspect because he is a man. This is also problematic because while it’s true that men perpetrate sexual violence disproportionately, assault happens across all gender dynamics. There is nothing inherently suspect about being a man, there is something suspect about toxic masculinity and rape culture. Likewise there is something suspect about double standards and homophobia, which this episode sadly perpetuated.

    I love this show so far but this oversight deserves reckoning from Michaela Coel in my opinion.

  4. Thank you for this exploration,
    as straight white guy, inches close to be the proverbial old white man, I took IMDY as a springboard to understand current approaches to identity and consent.
    Never really got my head around why Kwame got so much flack, especially as I warmed to him and I myself would be hesitant to lay my sexual history on the table myself as a matter of being an introvert. Years later still nagging me and amazed a simple search could find your text.
    Your context helped a lot to form an approach to understanding, probably not a judgement.
    sincere thanks

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